Tuto­r­i­al 18: Mag­ic words – the for­mu­la for success

What do Shake­speare, the Bible, the Get­tys­burg Address and a suc­cess­ful fundrais­ing let­ter have in com­mon? Mag­ic words. And what makes cer­tain words mag­ic? Their length. Any com­mon word of five let­ters or less is mag­ic. There­in lies a for­mu­la for success.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
February 11, 2019

The magic formula test

  1. Count every word in your letter, including the salutation, the closing, proper names, numbers, hyphenated words – everything. Count them all.
  2. Now go back and count the number of words containing five letters or less.
  3. Divide this total by the number of words you have in your letter, and you have your magic formula score.

75% is excellent – your letter is extremely readable.
70% is acceptable.
65% is a sign of trouble.
60% is bad news.
55% is unacceptable.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. The magic formula does not necessarily reflect the educational level of your donors. In fact, the trouble is rarely that your reader’s vocabulary is too small. Instead, your reader simply doesn’t wish to cope with the long words.

Long words cut down readability. Short words increase readability.

Even your most intellectual donor may be discouraged by the presence of long words. Your reader isn’t stupid. A high IQ, or high information level, has nothing to do with it.

In most cases, long, technical, obtuse, foreign, unfamiliar words block the flow of communication.

As a writer, you have a curious set of tools – 26 letters, one zero, nine numbers, and about a dozen punctuation marks.

Your choice of words must be restricted to the vocabulary of your donors. You really can’t write a fundraising letter until you understand what words are meaningful to the people who will receive your letter. What words are inspirational, frightening, beloved, distasteful, spiritual, trite, motivating, or exciting?

I am constantly amazed to see letters that either insult the readers’ intelligence, or talk way above their heads.

We live in a land full of word pictures. Information comes to us in the form of signs and symbols. We are visually oriented.

1) Beware of qualifiers.

Stay away from words that are twisted by adding ‘un’. For example: ‘The new drug is not unreliable.’

You simply mean: ‘The new drug is reliable.’

Say what you mean. My rule for copywriting applies: ‘If there is any chance for a donor to get confused, she will.’

When two negatives make a positive, you have successfully confused your reader. If the person has to struggle with your meaning, the letter flow is blocked.

2) Realise that familiarity often breeds money.

Give your reader a point of contact. Talk to hospital donors about a health care crisis. Talk to classical music lovers about the counterpoint of life.

Religious words have a special meaning for religious people, because they associate the words with church attendance, sermons, religious music, family traditions, devotional books.

But each religious group has a certain set of trigger words. Learn these words before you begin to write copy. When writing to a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, you would rarely say, ‘because of your belief in God...’

To that person, it’s not enough to just believe in God. The only acceptable relationship with God is being a ‘born-again Christian.’

You see what I mean? Don’t fight with words. Get inside the mind of your readers. Use their words. Establish a contact.

3) Learn to recognise speech patterns.

As you learn the words that are meaningful to certain audiences, you will discover interesting speech patterns – the way the words are strung together. Let these speech patterns flow through your copy.

The most obvious example is the use of homespun figures of speech:

‘We’ve got to help these people and stop spinning our wheels.’

That sentence, to an average audience, might strike a common denominator of meaning.
But to a highly-educated audience it might be considered ‘talking down’, or trite.
And some would simply not understand it.

4) Practice building word pictures.

Washington Irving, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, gives us this word picture:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow, sloping shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, and his whole framework most loosely hung together. His head was small...

Try this kind of thing in your letters. Think of giving your readers a little television screen that flashes a visual image for your illustration.

5) Become familiar with the technique of narration.

Here is a simple way to understand narration: in the traditional Christmas play, the person who tells the Christmas story is called the narrator – the storyteller.

As a writer you become a storyteller – a narrator. Your technique is narration. It’s that simple. And everyone loves a good story. Sometimes you can begin right in the middle of the action:

‘This child was abandoned in a garbage dump!’
‘I wasn’t able to say “no” when John applied for a scholarship.’

These few words swiftly paint a word picture. You have told a story. The reader will move along with you.

It’s all in the words.

But here is where you absolutely must use specific words and combinations of words that are consistent with the image of your organisation.

I’m not saying that every letter must be a crisis or a disaster. All I’m saying is that the more urgent your appeal, the more money you will probably raise.

However, you must maintain a balance. And this balance is related to the nature of your organisation and your philosophy of fundraising. What is appropriate for you? That’s your decision.

A good writer must decide on the ‘tone’ of the appeal. Will it be hard sell? Or soft sell? Pushy? Or quietly urgent? Dramatic or educational? Whichever direction you go...

6) Have the courage to use trigger words.

Extensive testing has identified key words that capture donor attention. For example: ‘Crisis threatens hospital!’

But, for some strange reason, the trigger words that raise the most money are the exact same words that your board and charity executives may feel most uncomfortable about:

  • Emergency...
  • Crisis...
  • Disaster...
  • Threat...
  • Immediate...
  • Urgent...
  • Hurry...

and so on.

This is a fact of life you must deal with. People give money to charities that appear to need the money – and appear to need it urgently. You will never be able to escape this fact.

When the boss insists you tone down your letter, discuss the implications with her, or him.

Why in the world does the good old ‘balance the budget’ campaign work year after year? Why will people send money to repair a damaged roof on a hospital, but not to pay the lights and water bills? You know the answer.

Here’s a list of the 13 strongest words in the English language:

  • Discovery
  • Results
  • Proven
  • New
  • Safety
  • You
  • Health
  • Early
  • Money
  • Save
  • Guarantee
  • Love
  • Free

Check your headlines and subheads. Be sure you are using some of these words.

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger was revered in direct marketing circles as the ‘dean of direct mail’. Many years ago, Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII. All 57 of them are gems. Together, they add up to a complete ‘how-to’ guide that covers everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising. Sadly, Jerry passed away in August 2023. 

These tutorials were edited and presented to SOFII by Gwen Chapman. Gwen is a passionate advocate for donor-centric fundraising. She is a senior consultant with international experience in the non-profit sector in Canada, the United States, the UK and South Africa. She explains the importance of these tutorials here.

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